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Column: Ethically questionable charitable donors

Revelations about the philanthropic largesse of Donald Sterling — for now still owner of the NBA franchise L.A. Clippers — raise significant issues for givers and beneficiaries.

According to Giving USA's Annual Report on Philanthropy, charitable giving in the United States exceeded $316 billion in 2012, equal to 2 percent of our gross domestic product. Nearly three-fourths of this sum, $223 billion, was contributed by donors.

These gifts have an enormous impact on our society and bestow status and social worth on donors. And that brings us back to Donald Sterling and other wealthy individuals who contribute billions of dollars.

Nongovernmental organizations perform a vital role for our society. But should charitable organizations accept donations from individuals who have engaged in ethically questionable activities and burnish their persona in the community?

This conundrum kept me up at night during the years I ran a nonprofit and organized an annual banquet. The thought of opening the morning paper and seeing an expose about a recipient of our organization's highest award was my worst nightmare. Fortunately, that didn't happen, but it does, as the L.A. chapter of the NAACP found with Sterling. They gave the money back, and so did the UCLA medical school ($3 million).

The multibillion-dollar question that nonprofits must consider is whether to take funds from ethically challenged donors. This is not to condone giving "Lifetime Achievement Awards" to blatant bigots who brazenly flaunt their largesse in newspaper ads and make obnoxious public pronouncements, but surely there must be some leeway in this exchange that confers virtue for a fee.

Should we be utilitarian and seek the greatest good for the most people in our decisions? How deep must charitable organizations dive into the background of donors to determine whether they earned their money legitimately? (The reciprocal position must also be addressed: Donors must scrutinize how their contributions are being used, especially in light of the Tampa Bay Times' expose on poorly run charities.)

In the case of Donald Sterling, there was a history of lawsuits and complaints alleging racial discrimination. But the issue is not always that obvious. And no matter the origin of the funds, we must consider the benefit of their use. How might kidney research have been advanced with Sterling's gift? Will UCLA get a replacement?

Should we reject monies from the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations whose founders engaged in abuses of land, labor and capital? Does all wealth emanate from tainted origins? Can our society survive without the gifts that fill the void left by insufficient government spending while conferring legitimacy on benefactors? There are no easy answers to these questions. It is a matter of personal decisionmaking guided by these rules: Stay informed; research would-be benefactors and charitable organizations; let your conscience be your guide; and "Let him without sin cast the first stone."

H. Roy Kaplan, who was executive director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for Tampa Bay for 15 years, has just published "Understanding Conflict and Change in a Multicultural World." He wrote this exclusively for the Times.

Column: Ethically questionable charitable donors 05/20/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2014 6:27pm]

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